Tuesday, 28 May 2013


Wirdsmit Group members at the Brownie Cottage
By the time the lottery funding had ended, it was clear that the Wirdsmit Group should continue and the obvious home for it was the George Mackay Brown Fellowship. GMB himself gave encouragement to young writers who approached him, and many did. For some months now Wirdsmit has received support from the group set up in his name, particularly from Pam Beasant, as well as from Louise Graham of Orkney Library & Archive, who applied successfully to OIC's Culture Fund to allow the group to carry on.

And it is no wonder the group continues to attract interest and support, for the quality of work that they produce never fails to impress.

Below is a small selection of clips from the two workshops members of the group have taken part in in the past few weeks. Thank you to those who have given permission for your work to be quoted. 

May the group grow and flourish and the young folk continue to develop their writing. 

'The Fin Not the Shark'

In the workshop in Stromness Library, Alan Bissett led a session on holding back in writing, keeping your reader guessing and wondering, so that they will go on reading. More effective, he told them, citing the film Jaws, to 'show the fin not the shark'. Here are two beginnings that show the young students learned the lesson well. 

Fire licked at Orion’s feet, and yet he still did not move. Smoke billowed around him, rising far into the sky, tainting the clear mountain air. A crow screamed, shooting out of a burning tree. Orion stood still, rooted to the spot, feeling the flames creep up his torso, lighting up the forest round about him. Eventually the raging heat engulfed his head, and he was plunged into darkness. Aisling Philips


The question I had wanted to ask my parents for years pounded inside my head.
‘Mum?’, I asked cautiously.
‘Yes dear?’
But that was it, my confidence gone.
‘Doesn’t matter.’
I twisted a lock of hair around my fingers in discomfort. I guess I was scared,
scared that my life would change forever. Ruisa Connolly

Writing Orkney Nature

A large part of writing is really looking at the world and paying close attention to detail. Two weeks ago a group of twelve young writers went to the Brownie Cottage to do just that, including those moving to Wirdsmit II.  For them it marked the final time they would spend with the younger group members. 

The trip fell within the week of the Orkney Nature Festival and with some help and advice from Sydney Gauld of OBRC and Gaby Barnby from Stromness Writing Group, Amber Connolly brought the youngsters to Orphir to look closely at Orkney nature and write about it.  

An unknown flower and seed head

Tall yellow flowers, they feel soft and smooth. They look like they only opened recently because at the top of the plant there are still buds. The leaves look like small broccoli leaves. There is a gentle, soft, sweet smell. It might have been wild though I doubt it.
I can remember when we first moved to Orkney I was fascinated by flowers, after all there weren’t many in London! When I was seven I loved finding dead animals and having funerals for them in the back garden. I would always put flowers on the graves. Most of the time they even had grave stones! I would always pick the prettiest flowers I could find, as long as they weren’t mums. If I had found these flowers I would have used them. Maya Tams-Gray
PS The flower/seed head was from a brussel sprout plant, so a good guess!


Hen Harrier

Silent bird of prey
Swarming over our heads
Large and hungry, ready to strike
Down, down, further into nothingness.

A rat, no a hare
Captured in talons,
You clutch on, not letting go
Then disappear into the clouds.

Will you return one day?                         

Ellhana Welbon


Writing about a shell from the ‘lucky dip’


The hollow frame of the shell is cold and crumbles to the touch.
It used to contain energetic life, the tiny animal exploring the sea bed. But now it is no longer supporting life, it is dead and dry.
It has been trampled underfoot without a thought and has been mingled with the sand.
One day a young girl picks up the shell, takes it home, and puts it outside her window.
Every day as she opens her curtains she looks at the empty, lifeless husk.
Every day the vicious wind and rain lashes the old shell, wearing it and crumbling it to pieces.
Every day the shell patiently waits.  Finley Tams-Gray


Writing about a stone

Stone cold
Too cold to touch
Open to a new world
Nestled in the ground
Energy gone.

Megan Card 


Friday, 24 May 2013


Amber Connolly
As is often the way, the idea for the Wirdsmit Group was born at a kitchen table where two friends drank tea and chatted. Amber Connolly and Alison Flett both had daughters who were keen writers. Why, they wondered, was there no writers' group for children and young people in Orkney when there was so much provision for adults who write? And who would set up such a group? Could they do it themselves? Yes they could.

Alison Flett
The idea grew arms and legs over more cups of tea round Alison's table and they were all set to start it up, when Alison had to go to Australia.

But help was at hand. Louise Graham, Children's Librarian, Orkney Library & Archive, being a passionate advocate of children's reading and writing was warmly supportive. In turn, she sought the support of Gary Amos, Orkney Library & Archive Manager, who was equally enthusiastic. This allowed the group to start up and attract lottery funding. To begin with the group was aimed at 8-12 year olds.

Louise Graham leading Chatterbooks
And the timing was good, because Nalini Paul had just finished her year of the George Mackay Fellowship and was able to do three of the twelve workshops that got the group going.

And from these work-shops emerg-ed a very im-pressive pub-lication called Wirdsmit: A Sea of Stories, which Nalini edited along with Amber and the group.

But as those of us who have run groups know, it is fine at the beginning when everything is new; more difficult is to sustain the momentum as time goes by. But Amber, Louise tells me, has never once wavered in her enthusiasm, her energy and her commitment to the group and to nurturing the creative writing of young people in Orkney.
Nalini Paul

It was about two years ago that the 8-12 year old group began. And now some of those who have been in the group from the start are outgrowing it and Amber has had to think of the next phase: a group for 13-15 year olds.

Alan Bissett and the Wirdsmit Group in Stromness Library
Cue Alan Bissett! 

As Reader in Residence I secured some Scottish Book Trust Live Literature funding to bring visiting authors to Orkney. Look at the Live Literature database, I said to Amber, and write a list of authors you would like to come and we'll see if they are available. When Alan Bissett came top of her list, I kept my doubts to myself. Not in his ability, but in his availability. Alan is one of Scotland's busiest authors, producing plays, one man shows, novels and stories, as well as being very much in demand via Live Literature. I seriously doubted that he would be free to make the journey to Orkney. But with that serendipity that has cropped up so often in this residency, it turned out that Alan was already intending to travel north for something else and the timing worked perfectly. 

On Sunday the 12th of May, some of the older young folk from Wirdsmit gathered with Amber and Alan upstairs in Stromness Library for a workshop to kick start the 13-15 group.

They were really engaged, really good writers ... far better writers than I was at their age ... so [the] group is working. And they were really nice kids, really pleasant.

All of them wrote stories that demonstrated what we'd been talking about. Very exciting pieces of work - quite sophisticated ideas for 13 year olds - yeah, I was really proud of the stuff they did. 
Alan Bissett on the Wirdsmit session 12.5.13

Amber was delighted with Alan's work with the group. He pitched it just right, she said, and engaged really well with the young folk. He was wonderful!

To hear more of how Alan led the group, tune in to this brief interview on soundcloud. He also talks about the importance of books and libraries in his life.

The following weekend, during Orkney Nature Festival, Amber brought a group of twelve young writers to the Brownie Cottage in Orphir for that most valued time-out for writers, a retreat in the country offering the peace and quiet to write in the company of other like-minded people. 

With the help of Sydney Gauld of Orkney Biodiversity Record Centre (OBRC), Amber drew up a list of examples of Orkney Nature that she would talk to the young people about. She encouraged them to consider the place of these things, not only in the landscape, but also in literature. The list included the primula scotica, the Westray black rat, the hedgehog, the pheasant ... Amber also had the help of Gaby Barnby from Stromness Writing Group, who provided a lucky dip of natural objects for the children to choose and then write about.

To hear more details of Amber's experience with the Wirdsmit group, listen to the interview on soundcloud.

And look out for the next blog for some samples of the great writing the young Wirdsmit members produced in both of the workshops.


Friday, 17 May 2013


Yesterday, a beautiful sunny day, I joined RSPB members, organisers and participants in Orkney Nature Festival on a trip round the Pentland Skerries.

I was slightly anxious that my  stomach would let me down - well, it was the PENTLAND FIRTH! - so I supplied myself in advance with sea bands for my wrists and sun cream for any bits of skin exposed through chinks in my anorak.

We set sail from Burwick on the Pentland Venture. I've never seen a boat so full! Keen bird watchers - about half and half local and visitor, as a show of hands at the end revealed - trained binoculars and long camera lenses on the choppy sea round the boat. A wonderfully knowledgeable running commentary by Steve Sankey of Orcadian Wildlife kept the binoculars swinging from port side to starboard, to stern as we were treated to sightings of bonxies, fulmars, guillemots, shags, Arctic terns, kittiwakes, gannets, and one Arctic skua, all either flying above us or nesting in colonies on the cliffs of the skerries and South Ronaldsay. And then there were the puffins. 

And I failed to bring binoculars! But I'm not very good with them anyway: a bird I see with the naked eye, seems to elude me as soon as I raise the glasses.

I'll tell you a story
aboot Tammie Norrie
If you don't spaek
in the middle o it

This is a rhyme my father used to say to us when we were young. He'd speak the words above, then stop. We would then demand the next part of the story, he'd say we'd spoken so we couldn't have it! We fell for it a few times before we discovered that was it, that was the story!

I was much older before I learned that Tammie Norrie is the Orkney name for a puffin. I've seen them before close up at Costa Head. But despite having nothing to magnify them yesterday, I really enjoyed watching them in the water and flying past the boat. They are small birds, dumpy and engaging, with their choppy, fussy flight style, their sub-tropical beaks and their eyes that look out mournfully to sea.

Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of my mum's death. She worked in the Tourist Office in Kirkwall, where the staff were driven slowly mad by the stream of visitors all summer long asking where they could see a puffin. She had a mug that expressed some of her feelings, with a puffin on one side against a rocky background and on the other side, just the rocky background. PUFFIN; NUFFIN, it read. But I think she would have enjoyed seeing them in their natural habitat yesterday. There were rafts of them beside the boat a few times and at least twice a lone bird flew past, close enough for me to see its brightly coloured beak and black and white plumage.

Lighthouses on Muckle Sker
Steve Sankey's interesting commentary went far beyond the birdlife though. He told us about the lighthouses on Muckle Skerry, built by Orkney masons in 1794 and supervised by Robert Stevenson, his first of many.

On Little Skerry there is the wreck of the Ben Barvis which ran aground in 1964 and was flung far up on the rock by the raging tides of the Pentland Firth. 

Ben Barvis aground on Little Skerry

Sitting on rocks on one of the skerries was a colony of shags, drying their wings. Steve said that if you think you see a cormorant at this time of year, it's more likely to be a shag, smaller and greener, but otherwise similar in its wing-drying habits.

I was amazed to hear of the antics of bonxies or Great Skuas, who don't look for their own food, but steal the food of other birds. According to Steve they will attack a gannet in mid flight by fastening on to its wing tips - a six feet wing span he said gannets have! - until they drop their cargo of fish into the waiting clutches of the bonxie. Or until they stop to fight their pursuer when apparently  they always come off worse. Bonxie - bully of the sea.

Fascinating too was the fact that fulmars have only been in Orkney since the early Nineteen Hundreds. Unlike kittiwakes and Arctic terns, who depend on sand eels, fulmars - and gannets - benefit, rather more than the fishermen, from the policy of having to throw back, dead, all fish caught accidentally that exceed or otherwise don't comply with regulations. The fulmars follow the trawlers and find rich pickings slung over the side.  One followed our boat for a good few sea miles and flew directly above us eyeing up the passengers for potential food. 

That was a cold inspection I can tell you! Edwin Morgan

At least he didn't spew on us!

I can't remember how far Steve said the Arctic tern travels in its life, but it seemed a phenomenal number of miles to me. Thousands - I think about 130,000!

Picky Terno is the Orkney name I know for these birds, because of their needle sharp beaks with which they will peck your head if you come too close. 

It was a good afternoon and the weather couldn't have been much better.

On the way back we sailed past the Tomb of the Eagles and could see folk walking on the cliffs. We didn't see any whales or dolphins, alas. That could have been because I was on the boat! All the things I'm longing to see elude me. 

But Steve did tell the story of a fin whale that must have been thrown onto the cliff in South Ronaldsay and hung there as if from a hook. I'm glad that wasn't the sight of a whale we had yesterday. I look forward to seeing minke, orcas and harbour porpoises swimming in these waters someday soon. 

They'll show themselves to me when they're good and ready.

Thank you to Anne Bignall of RSPB for the opportunity to go on the boat trip. And to Steve Sankey for the fascinating stories. 

Come in to Orkney Library & Archive to see the lovely displays of books, exhibition of archive materials and the presentation of the work of the Orkney Biodiversity Record Centre (OBRC) on screen in the foyer. 

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

IAN STEPHEN - Poet, Storyteller & Sailor in Transit

Ian Stephen frequently sails under his own steam round the islands of Scotland, gathering stories and writing poems as he goes and telling them to rapt audiences wherever he ties up his boat.

This Friday we are lucky enough to be on his route between Ullapool and Lewis - the long way round!

Ian will appear as part of the Orkney Library & Archives contribution to  Orkney Nature Festival's Maritime Day in the wood-lined ship's hold of the Upper Library at Stromness Academy, so he should feel at home.

Ian Stephen
Friday 17 May
7.00 pm
Upper Library
Stromness Academy

Entry FREE 
Wine, soft drinks & nibbles provided

Ian's poems reflect his island background and his passions for the big seas and skies round Scotland.

"A writer, artist and storyteller, Ian Stephen was born in Stornoway in 1955 and still lives on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. He studied English, Drama and Education at Aberdeen University. After 15 years in the coastguard, he became a full-time writer of poetry, prose and drama in 1995. His poetry and short stories have been published in periodicals in many countries since 1979. 

Ian was awarded writing bursaries from the Scottish Arts Council in 1981 and 1995. He was also the inaugural winner of the Christian Salvesen/Robert Louis Stevenson award in 1995, and in 2004, he was the first artist in residence at StAnza, Scotland's annual poetry festival. He received a Creative Scotland Award, contributed to Zenomap (Venice Biennale 2003), and represented Scotland at ‘Poetry without Borders’ in the Czech Republic, 2004.
Among his publications are Malin, Hebrides, Minches, with photos by Sam Maynard (Dangaroo Press, Denmark, 1983), Varying States of Grace(Polygon, 1989), Mackerel & Cremola (pocketbooks, 2001), and It's about this (Nomad/ Survivors Press, 2004), from a poem-log of a voyage to Orkney, commissioned by StAnza. A bilingual edition of his poetry, Adrift / Napospas vln├ím, was published in Czech in 2007." (from Scottish Poetry Library website)

Sanday Island

Expansive skies
as of Dutch-masters
but these are faster:
shifting light tones.
Sea colours assault
both shores and eyes.
A lot of angry white
breaking from brilliance.

Dry dykes could never
hold that water out
so grazings and furrows are
backspaced a field-fathom.

But lichened slabs,
cemented just high enough
to make muted roofs,
stay-put on built frames.

Gales ruffle skins
of sand and walls:
of cattle and dwellings
and pass over all.
Ian Stephen
from Varying States of Grace (Polygon, 1989)

Monday, 13 May 2013

Nature Books & Photos & Archives in Orkney Library & Archive

This wild looking wild bird is a gannet and is just one of the many species featured in the beautiful photographs in the display Sydney Gauld of the Orkney Biodiversity Record Centre (OBRC), has put together in his presentation on the plasma screen in the foyer of Orkney Library & Archive.

And below is a collage of the displays of books and documents my colleagues in the library have been putting up over the past week.